Port of Tacoma Commission approves methanol plant lease

Staff writerMay 1, 2014 

Port of Tacoma

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer

The biggest development project on the Tacoma Tideflats in decades won the unanimous approval of the Port of Tacoma Commission Thursday despite some residents' doubts about the plant's safety and environmental effects.

The $1.8 billion plant proposed by Northwest Innovation Works would convert natural gas to methanol for shipment to Asia. There it would be made into olefins, the basic ingredients in plastics.

The 30-year lease approved in a 4-0 vote (Commission President Clare Petrich was absent) includes an 18-to-24-month feasiblity phase, a 3-year construction phase and a 25-year operations phase.  The lease also includes an option to extend it for 25 more years.

The plant would be built on a 90-acre site that once was home to a Kaiser Aluminum smelter between the Hylebos and Blair waterways. Production is scheduled to begin in 2019.

The methanol created by the plant would be shipped to Asia aboard tankers that would call on the port's East Blair Terminal.

A standing-room-only crowd -- rare for a port commission meeting -- came both to support and to raise questions about the project.

The plant, which will employ 1,000 construction workers at its peak and 200 operations workers at full production, drew support from the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council, Longshore Union Local 23, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, Gov. Jay Inslee, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Testifying at Thursday's meeting but still undecided about the plant were the Northeast Tacoma Neighborhood Council and the Tacoma Black Collective, represented at the meeting by Tom Dixon, president emeritus of the Tacoma Urban League.

Some Northeast Tacoma residents whose homes would overlook the chemical plant site asked the commission not to rush into the lease.

Russ McCarty, a nearby resident, asked the commission to table the lease proposal until it could devote more study to the long-term effects of creating a new chemical production plant on the site.

Commission members said the 18-to-24-month feasibility and permitting phase of the lease would provide citizens ample opportunity to learn of the plant's safety and pollution profile.

Joe Smith, Northwest Innovations president, said the new plant will be equipped with state-of-the-art safety and pollution control measures.

Among those safety measures will be an on-site fire station staffed by company firefighters.

Methanol is flammable, he said, but it rapidly evaporates if exposed to the air and breaks down into non-toxic substances if spilled into the soil.  The substance doesn't  cause cancer, he said.

State Sen. Jeannie Darneille said the plant is "the project that everyone wants to love."

But she and some of her constituents have unanswered questions about the plant's effects the transparency of Northwest Innovations' plans.

"We have much to still discuss," she said.

Port Commissioner Don Meyer said he has concerns about whether the Blair Waterway is wide enough to handle the tankers that will carry the finished products to Asia without unduly effecting other shipping line customers with facilities on the waterway.

Capt. Jonathan Ward, Puget Sound Pilots president, said the pilots believe the 150-foot-wide tankers can be successfully and safely navigated to and from the East Blair Terminal.  If there is a concern, he said, its not so much about the width of the waterway but about its depth.

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